Is Islam Compatible with Democracy?, Part 1
12 Dec, 2006
Occasionally I get annoyed over the fact that I am compelled to
spend significant amounts of my time refuting Islam, an ideology
that is flawed to the core and should be totally irrelevant in the
21st century. But then I try to see it from a positive angle: The
good part about our confrontation with Islam is that it forces us to
deal with flaws in our own civilization. It has already exposed a
massive failure in our education system and our media, both filled
with anti-Western sentiments and ideological nonsense. These
legacies from the Western Cultural Revolution of the 1960s and 70s
have left us unable to recognize the Islamic threat for what it is
. Thus, when we are confronted now with the question of whether
or not Islam is compatible with democracy, we also have to ask under
what conditions a democratic system is able to function.
What are the strengths and weaknesses of a democratic system? What is "freedom" and "liberty," and does universal suffrage automatically equal liberty? Democracy could briefly be defined as the ability of the people of a state or political entity to genuinely influence the policies of their government by non-violent means. However, this is abstract; we need a more detailed definition to pin down the reality. In the Athenian city-state of ancient Greece, voting rights included all citizens, perhaps one tenth of the population of the city. Plato's description of democracy in The Republic is close to anarchy. He rightly points out some inherent weaknesses in the democratic model; no doubt influenced by the fate of his teacher Socrates. Socrates made many enemies by criticizing those Athenians who, by means of cheap rhetoric, used democracy to gain power. His courage in speaking out led to his trial, in which his accusers claimed that he was corrupting the young. Found guilty, Socrates was sentenced to drinking poison. This experience led Plato to conclude that Athens' democracy was an unjust form of government.
Plato envisioned a just government as one which was ruled by educated philosophers or by a philosopher-king. In his famous "Myth of the Cave," people are chained in a cave with a fire behind them. When others pass in front of the fire, they can see shadows on the cave wall, and falsely believe that these shadows represent reality. According to Plato, the purpose of the ruler should be to enlighten the masses and show them the truth behind these shadowy images.
In The Politics, Aristotle, too, was critical of the democratic system. He described the various models of ruling thus:
"Of forms of government in which one rules, we call that which regards the common interests, monarchy; that in which more than one, but not many, rule, aristocracy (and it is so called, either because the rulers are the best men, or because they have at heart the best interests of the state and of the citizens). But when the citizens at large administer the state for the common interest, the government is called a polity. And there is a reason for this use of language.
Of the above-mentioned forms, the perversions are as follows: of monarchy, tyranny; of aristocracy, oligarchy; of polity, democracy. For tyranny is a kind of monarchy which has in view the interest of the monarch only; oligarchy has in view the interest of the wealthy; democracy, of the needy: none of them the common good of all. Tyranny, as I was saying, is monarchy exercising the rule of a master over the political society; oligarchy is when men of property have the government in their hands; democracy, the opposite, when the indigent, and not the men of property, are the rulers." 
Although the potential for abuse of power and tyranny is indeed there in the democratic model, this potential exists in other forms of government, too. What Plato failed to see was that it could be possible to institute constraints on democracy that would limit some of its potential downsides, although not eliminate them completely. The American Founding Fathers, too, were skeptical of "democracy" in the meaning of unconstrained direct democracy, which they, like Plato, perceived could quickly disintegrate into mob rule. They outlined a constitutional Republic with indirect, representative democracy defined by a constitution. Citizens would be governed by the rule of law, thus protecting the minority from abuse and the potential tyranny of the majority. John Adams defined this as "a government of laws, and not of men."
The Constitution of the United States was inspired by the French Enlightenment thinker Montesquieu, famous for his theory of the separation of powers into branches: The executive, the legislature, and the judiciary, with checks and balances among them. The USA has strong separation of powers, whereas many European countries typically have parliamentary democracies with weaker separation, since the executive branch, the government, is dependent on the legislature. Democracy strengthened by such constraints and individual rights has worked reasonably well, but like all other human inventions it isn't perfect. The system still has its critics. In How the West Was Lost, author Alexander Boot outlines what he thinks ails the modern West. It is a provocative book. I disagree with some of his criticism of post-Enlightenment civilization in general, but Boot is articulate and original; some of his points about the nature of the modern state are worth contemplating.
For example, he says, "The word 'democracy' in both Greece and Rome had no one man one vote implications and Plato used it in the meaning of 'mob rule.' The American founding fathers never used it at all and neither did Lincoln. (???) a freely voting French citizen or British subject of today has every aspect of his life controlled, or at least monitored, by a central government in whose actions he has little say. He meekly hands over half his income knowing the only result of this transfer will be an increase in the state's power to extort even more. (...) He opens his paper to find yet again that the 'democratic' state has dealt him a blow, be that of destroying his children's education, raising his taxes, devastating the army that protects him, closing his local hospital or letting murderers go free. In short, if one defines liberty as a condition that best enables the individual to exercise his freedom of choice, then democracy of universal suffrage is remiss on that score."
Boot also warns against the increasing prevalence of Politically Correct censorship through hate speech laws: "Laws against racism are therefore not even meant to punish criminal acts. They are on the books to reassert the power of the state to control not just the citizens' actions but, more important, their thoughts and the words they use to get these across. (???) A state capable of prosecuting one person for his thoughts is equally capable of prosecuting thousands, and will predictably do so when it has consolidated its power enough to get away with any outrage. (???) It is relatively safe to predict that, over the next ten years, more and more people in Western Europe and North America will be sent to prison not for something they have done, but for something they have said."
Lee Harris, the author of The Suicide of Reason, wonders what were the necessary conditions for the growth of modern reason. This was the question taken up by Johann Herder:
"What kind of culture was necessary in order to produce a critical thinker like Immanuel Kant himself? When Kant, in his Critique of Pure Reason, methodically demolished all the traditional proofs for the existence of God, why wasn't he torn limb from limb in the streets of K??nigsburg by outraged believers?" 
Cynics would argue that they simply didn't understand his eight hundred page thesis, which isn't exactly light reading, as those who have attempted to digest his writings can testify. Although Kant had the freedom to do this in 18th-century Europe, he would probably have been killed had he attempted the same thing in the Islamic world, which is one of the reasons why the Scientific and Industrial Revolutions took place in the West, and not under Islam.
So how do we treat freethinkers asking sensitive questions in the 21st century West? In my own country, the Ombud for Gender Equality recently became The Equality and Anti-discrimination Ombud. Its duties include combating "discriminatory speech" and negative statements about other cultures and religions. If accused of such discrimination, one has to mount proof of innocence. In effect, this institution is a secular or Multicultural Inquisition: the renunciation of truth in favor of an ideological lie. Galileo Galilei faced the same choice during the Inquisition four hundred years earlier. The Multicultural Inquisition may not threaten to kill you, but it does threaten to kill your career, and that goes a long way in achieving the same result, whether your crime is claiming that the earth moves around the sun or that not all cultures are equal.
Has liberty regressed during the past two hundred years? How was it possible that Immanuel Kant, who lived in a German state without liberal democracy, could criticize basic aspects of religion in the 18th century, while in the West of the 21st century there are social and legal consequences for criticizing other religions and cultures? It is a mistake to assume that liberty (in the meaning of freedom of speech and conscience) derives of necessity from a democracy of universal suffrage. Do we need a new Enlightenment to fill the vacuum formed by the fall of Political Correctness?
I have made a list of suggested conditions for a functioning democratic system:
* There must be a demos. That is, there must be a group of people with a shared pre-political loyalty. This common understanding would include mutual identification and trust between leaders who implement policies and the general public. There must be sanctions in place to allow the demos to hold accountable or remove incompetent or corrupt officials. The growth of supranational institutions has weakened the connections between the members of the elite and the nation states they are supposed to serve. The demos has been attenuated by both Multiculturalism and mass immigration.
* In the demos, there has to be true freedom of speech. There have to be genuine debates about crucial issues. For a combination of reasons, this process is now severely curtailed in many Western countries. Activists on the Left demand formal and informal censorship of sensitive issues. Meanwhile, the media isn't functioning as a counterweight to the political elites because it frequently is in lockstep with these elites.
* In the demos, there should be no significant Muslim presence. Islam is toxic to a democratic society for several reasons, which I will explore later. One is the possibility of physical attack against anybody who criticizes the Islamic agenda. The fear thus engendered destroys any possibility of a free, civil public discourse. Another is the resentment generated by Muslim demands for separate laws and "special treatment," demands which are driven by an inherent sense of entitlement. Finally, there is the harassment of non-Muslims, even those who do not criticize Islam. This aggressive behavior is always part and parcel of Jihad.
* The territorial entity where the demos lives must control its own borders. A nation that fails to discriminate between citizens and non-citizens, between members and non-members of the demos, will cease to function.
What is disturbing about this list is that in the West ??? particularly Western Europe ??? few of these conditions remain. We are no longer citizens; we are subjects, mere spectators to destinies others have chosen for us. We are citizens only if we have genuine influence over how our tax money is spent. We are subjects when we just pay taxes while others decide what to do with this money.
The control of borders and the sovereignty of nation states are linked to the list above. Democratic decisions are meaningless if they can be overruled by an external authority. This notion of sovereignty is being challenged all over the Western world both through the United Nations and through the ascendance of international law. Sovereignty is clearly not present in much of Europe, where seventy percent or more of all laws passed are federal EU laws. Democratically elected national parliaments have been reduced to insignificance. It is thus possible to argue that Western European countries are no longer distinct democracies, nor are they part of the "Free World" in any meaningful sense. Europeans thus have universal suffrage, but we don't have genuine democracy and we certainly don't have true liberty.
Why is the European Union not democratic? One element is its sheer size; another is the massive bureaucracy that has grown up around it. As F.A. Hayek writes in The Road to Serfdom:
"Least of all shall we preserve democracy or foster its growth if all the power and most of the decisions rest with an organization far too big for the common man to survey or comprehend. Nowhere has democracy ever worked well without a great measure of local self-government, providing a school of political training for the people at large as much as for their future leaders. It is only where responsibility can be learnt and practiced in affairs with which most people are familiar, where it is awareness of one's neighbor rather than some theoretical knowledge of the needs of other people which guides action, that the ordinary man can take a real part in public affairs because they concern the world he knows. Where the scope of the political measures become so large that the necessary knowledge is almost exclusively possessed by the bureaucracy, the creative impulses of the private person must flag."
It can't all be about size, since the system has worked somewhat better in the United States. The most important reason for this democratic deficit in Europe is the lack of any formal constraints on the power of leading EU organs. In 2006, for the twelfth year in a row the European Court of Auditors, the EU's official financial watchdog, refused to approve the EU budget because it was so full of fraud and errors. Half the project budgets approved by the European Commission were inadequately monitored.
This story of fraudulence was largely ignored by Europe's media. The powerful European Commission is the EU's "government," and thus the government of nearly half a billion people from Hungary to Britain and from Finland to Spain, yet it can release accounts with massive flaws for over a decade straight. Such lack of oversight would have been unthinkable in the USA. The EU Commission gets away with it because it is largely unaccountable to anyone and was intentionally structured to operate this way in the first place. Just like the Politburo of the former Soviet Union, the EU Commission is not subject to any real checks and balances.
It is obviously easier to establish democracy in a small and transparent nation state than in a larger one. However, Sweden ??? the Western country where people pay the highest tax rates ??? is also arguably the most politically repressed nation and has the least real freedom of speech. Sweden's problem is not its geographical size, but the bloated state apparatus. Perhaps limitations on bureaucracy, government influence and intrusion are crucial for a functioning democracy, too. In a traditional pre-modern state, the ruler might not always have ruled with your consent, but he largely left you alone as long as you paid your taxes. Not so in our modern democratic nations. Our schools are increasingly filled with courses disparaging our own indigenous cultural heritage while they praise Islamic "tolerance." We are barred from bringing up our own children and instilling in them our values. Is this liberty?
??ystein Djupedal, Minister of Education and Research in Norway's Socialist Leftist Party, stated in public that: "I think that it's simply a mistaken view of child-rearing to believe that parents are the best to raise children. Children need a village, said Hillary Clinton. But we don't have that. The village of our time is the kindergarten." Following public reactions, he later retracted this statement. Critics would claim that the government treats the entire country as a kindergarten. The Ministry of Education and Research in Norway is responsible for nursery education, primary and lower secondary education, day-care facilities for school children, upper secondary education and institutions of higher education such as universities. In other words, one bureaucracy controls everything Norwegians learn from kindergarten through the doctoral level. 
There is a crucial reason why the European Union isn't democratic: There is no European demos. Most people in Europe identify themselves as Italian, Spanish, Dutch or Polish. The notion of being a European is at best a very distant second. In contrast, United States citizens consider themselves Americans, although Multiculturalism encourages dual identities, in which individuals are African-American, Asian-American etc. This tribalization represents a critical long-term challenge to the continued quality of American democracy. It is conceivable that the backlash could cause the country to fall apart if the white majority, too, decides to view itself as a tribal group of European-Americans.
Mr. Carl I. Hagen of the right-wing Progress Party criticized the choice of a foreign citizen to head Norway's immigration agency. Eva Joly, a Norwegian born French magistrate, known in France for her crusade against corruption, disagreed with Hagen: "To assume that nationality or citizenship have anything to do with being suitable [for a job] is a very old-fashioned way of thinking. We are no longer thinking in national terms, but in European or global terms. It is a duty to employ people from other countries," said Joly. She has been granted both Norwegian and French citizenship, but considers herself European. 
When we elect people to important positions, we want them to take care of our interests, not ephemeral "global interests." How can we rely on the people entrusted to work for us if they openly state that they don't feel any loyalty towards our country? According to British philosopher Roger Scruton, members of our liberal elite may be immune to xenophobia, but there is an equal fault which they exhibit in abundance, which is oikophobia, the repudiation and fear of home.
In his book The West and the Rest: Globalization and the Terrorist Threat, Scruton believes that what characterizes the West is our idea of the personal state:
"The personal state is characterized by a constitution, by a rule of law, and by a rotation of office-holders. Its decisions are collectively arrived at by a process that may not be wholly democratic, but which nevertheless includes every citizen and provides the means whereby each citizen can adopt the outcome as his own. Personal states have an inherent preference for negotiation over compulsion, and for peace over war. [The personal state] is answerable to its citizens, and its decisions can be imputed to them not least because they, as citizens, participate in the political process." 
For this democratic process to work there has to be a loyalty and identity that precedes political allegiance. We must have a community that has primary common interests. This has no real counterpart in Islamic countries, where the ideal is the global Ummah and the Caliphate. Concepts such as the nation state or territorial integrity have no equivalent in Islamic jurisprudence, which helps explain why democracy is so hard to establish in Muslim countries.
Scruton notes, however, that the Western personal state is now under pressure from two directions. Supranational institutions are destroying the sense of membership from above, while massive immigration without assimilation is destroying it from below. The European Union, among others, "is rapidly destroying the territorial jurisdictions and national loyalties that have, since the Enlightenment, formed the basis of European legitimacy, while putting no new form of membership in their place." And although it makes sense for individuals travelling from Third World countries to settle in the West, they may thus unwittingly contribute to destroying what they came to enjoy the benefits of in the first place:
"The political and economic advantages that lead people to seek asylum in the West are the result of territorial jurisdiction. Yet territorial jurisdictions can survive only if borders are controlled. Transnational legislation, acting together with the culture of repudiation, is therefore rapidly undermining the conditions that make Western freedoms durable."
Scruton comments that for the first time in centuries Islam appears to be "a single religious movement united around a single goal," and that "one major factor in producing this unwonted unity is Western civilization and the process of globalization that it has set in motion." According to him, this is a result of "Western prosperity, Western legal systems, Western forms of banking, and Western communications that human initiatives now reach so easily across frontiers to affect the lives and aspirations of people all over the globe."
Thus we have the irony in which "Western civilization depends on an idea of citizenship that is not global at all, but rooted in territorial jurisdiction and national loyalty." By contrast, Islam, which has been until recently remote from the Western world, is founded on an ideal "which is entirely global in its significance." Globalization, therefore, "offers militant Islam the opportunity that it has lacked since the Ottoman retreat from central Europe." It has brought into existence "a true Islamic umma, which identifies itself across borders in terms of a global form of legitimacy, and which attaches itself like a parasite to global institutions and techniques that are the by-products of Western democracy."
Scruton raises some difficult questions: Does globalization make it easier for Muslims to realize the idea of a global Islamic community, which has always been an ideal but far from a practical reality? Does it also put pressure on the territorial integrity of coherent nation states? If so, does globalization strengthen Islam while it weakens Western democracy? These questions are difficult to think about, but for the sake of survival we need to ask them and find an honest answer.
Globalization doesn't necessarily mean that Islam will win. In the long run, it is quite possible that mass communications and the exposure to criticism will destroy Islam, but it could ironically make it more dangerous in the short term.
Is Islam compatible with democracy? Justice Minister Piet Hein Donner strongly disagrees with a plea for a ban on parties seeking to launch Islamic law in the Netherlands. "For me it is clear: if two-thirds of the Dutch population should want to introduce the sharia tomorrow, then the possibility should exist."
This dilemma can be solved by stating the following: Our goal is not democracy in itself, meaning elections and one man one vote, but freedom of conscience and speech, respect for property rights and minorities, the right to bear arms and self-defense, equality before the law and the rule of law - and by that I mean secular law ??? in addition to such principles as formal constraints on the power of the rulers and the consent of the people. Free elections may be a means of achieving this end, but it is not the end in itself. We shouldn't confuse the tools with the primary goal.
Two central concepts in sharia are the notions of "blasphemy" and "apostasy," both incurring the death penalty. These laws are incompatible with the ancient Western ideas of freedom of conscience and of speech. Thus, sharia is anathema to the goals of democracy. Sharia is also hostile to equality before the law, since Islamic law is based on the fundamental inequality between Muslims and non-Muslims, men and women, free men and slaves. Moreover, it does not provide any protection for minorities, since non-Muslims are supposed to be unarmed and their lives and property subject to the whims of Muslims at any given moment. Although Islam does contain the vague Koranic notion of shura, consultation, this has never been formalized or concretized, which means that there are no formal constraints on the power of the ruler under sharia. The only thing an Islamic ruler may not do is openly to reject Islam.
Fjordman is based in Norway. He contributes in Brussels Journal, Gates of Vienna and Faith Freedom International amongst other Websites. His personal blog (currently inactive): www.fjordman.blogspot.com